The Amelia Alderson Opie Archive
1806 Simple Tales
 
 Edinburgh Review, 8 (July 1806): 465-71.

 

WE owe some apology to Mrs Opie, for omitting, at the proper time, to take notice of her beautiful story of the Mother and Daughter; the second volume of which is perhaps the most pathetic, and the most natural in its pathos, of any fictitious narrative in the language.  In the tales now before us, we find much of the same merits; the same truth and delicacy of sentiment; the same graceful simplicity in the dialogue parts of the work; and the same happy art of presenting ordinary feelings and occurrences in a manner that irresistibly commands our sympathy and affection.

            Mrs Opie has no great share of invention, either in incident or in character.  We often see through the whole story from its first opening; and few of her personages can be said to be original, or even uncommon, when compared either with the inventions of dramatists, or the variety of common life.  They have a merit, however, which in our eyes is incomparably superior, -- they are strictly true to general nature, and are rarely exhibited, except in interesting situations.  We have always been of opinion, indeed, that no character can be natural, unless it be pretty common; and that that originality, of which so many writers are ambitious, is of value chiefly in bringing out the effect of ludicrous and violently comical representations.  For more serious sympathy, we must be made to feel that the sentiments and actions of the characters are such, as must inevitably belong to all persons in their situations; and it is on the delicate adaptation of their language and conduct to their circumstances, and not to any supposed peculiarity in their character, that the success of the writer will generally depend.  It will be found accordingly, we believe, that almost all the fine traits of natural expression that are quoted and remembered, from the dramatists and greater poets, both ancient and modern, derive their whole beauty from this perfect and beautiful conformity to general and universal nature; and that they reach the heart of every reader, just because every reader perceives at once that they express the concentrated and appropriate emotion, which it is natural for persons in such circumstances to feel.  There is no need for the representation of ideal individuality.  The general conception of a delicate and affectionate girl – of a gallant and warm-hearted young man – of a tender mother, a patriotic warrior, or an anxious lover – are quite sufficient to call forth our sympathies, and to make us feel, in its whole force and extent, the truth of the sentiments imputed to them.  The task and the triumph of the fabulist is in selecting situations that give rise to the most powerful and commanding of those sentiments, and in expressing them with simplicity and directness.

            These observations might be illustrated, we conceive, in a very striking way, by an examination of the most impressive passages and characters in the works of Shakespeare; nor would it be difficult perhaps to show, that what have often been quoted as examples of originality in the conception of character, are nothing more than the exquisite adaptation of common and familiar feelings to peculiar situations.  It is impossible for us, however, to enter into such an investigation at present.  We shall merely desire our readers to consider how little substantial diversity of character there is among the female person of this great writer; and whether it is to any thing, but to the difference of their situation, that we can refer the variety of emotion which we receive from the natural expressions of Desdemona, Imogen, Juliet, Ophelia, and Miranda.

            There is something delightful feminine in all of Mrs Opie’s writings; an apparent artlessness in the composition of her narrative, and something which looks like want of skill or of practice in writing for the public, that gives a powerful effect to the occasional beauties and successes of her genius.  There is nothing like an ambitious or even a sustained tone in her stories; we often think she is going to be tedious or silly; and immediately, without effort or apparent consciousness of improvement, she slides into some graceful and interesting dialogue, or charms us with some fine and delicate analysis of the subtler feelings, which would have done honour to the genius of Marivaux.  She does not reason well; but she has, like most accomplished women, the talent of perceiving truth without the process of reasoning, and of bringing it out with the facility and the effect of an obvious and natural sentiment.  Her language is often inaccurate, but it is almost always graceful and harmonious.  She can do nothing well that requires to be done with formality; and, therefore, has not succeeded in copying either the concentrated force of weighty and deliberate reason, or the severe and solemn dignity of majestic virtue.  To make amends, however, she represents admirably everything that is amiable, generous, and gentle.

            These tales are of very unequal merit; and we do not propose to give any detailed account of them.  Those in the third volume, we think, are clearly the best.  The Soldier’s Return, and the Brother and Sister, though the scene is laid, in both, in humble life, and the incidents by no means new either in real or fictitious story, are pathetic to a painful and distressing degree.  The latter in particular is written with great delicacy and beauty.  We regret that our limits will not permit us to give some part of it to our readers.  We can only make room for the last words of the unfortunate heroine, with one sentence of necessary explanation.  Ellen Percival, the beautiful daughter of an English farmer, is seduced by a French Nobleman who had lodged in her father’s house during a period of illness.  After his desertion of her, and his return to his own country, she is driven, by shame and temporary distraction, to destroy, at the moment of its birth, the fruit of their unlawful connexion.  She is condemned to die; and, on the eve of her execution, writes this letter to the author of all her agonies.  We are sensible that it will lose much of its effect when read without any further knowledge of the tender and simple character of the writer; but it is impossible to read it, we believe, without being struck with the tone of natural and gentle feeling which it expresses so admirably.

[quotes from “Brother and Sister”]

            The story of ‘the Orphan’ is pretty, and very interesting.  It contains the following verses, supposed to be written by a gentle and timid young woman, pining under the oppression of a romantic and concealed passion for a man who entertained no suspicion of her attachment.  We think they have great tenderness and beauty.

[quotes from “The Orphan”]

            ‘The Uncle and the Nephew’ is amiable and well managed. – ‘The Death-Bed’ – ‘The Robber’ – and ‘Murder will out,’ are not very natural.  ‘The Fashionable Wife’ is still worse; and, though many of the particular scenes are well drawn, we cannot help withholding our sympathy from distresses, deduced from a source so inadequate and fantastic.  In the other tales, there is occasionally something frivolous, and something too obvious and inartificial; but in all, there is much just representation of manners and character, and much pleasing composition.

            We cannot place Mrs Opie so high in the scale of intellect as Miss Edgeworth; nor are her Tales, though perfectly unobjectionable on the score of morality, calculated to do so much good.  They are too fine for common use; and do not aim at the correction of errors and follies of so extensive and fundamental a nature.  She does not reason so powerfully; and she is not sufficiently cheerful; Indeed she is too pathetic, to be read with much advantage to practical morality.  Her writings, however, are very amiable and very beautiful; and exhibit virtuous emotions under a very graceful aspect.  They would do very well to form a woman that a gentleman should fall in love with; but can be of no great use in training ordinary mortals to ordinary duties.

 

 
   
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